New administrator wants to change the way USAID works

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 24, 2011; 10:07 PM

"This agency is no longer satisfied with writing big checks to big contractors and calling it development."

Those challenging words, spoken last week by Rajiv Shah, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), were just one part of his speech forging a new direction for an agency that has been in the backwater of U.S. foreign and national security policies for years.

With little more than a year on the job, the 37-year-old medical doctor and research scientist, who once handled the $1.5 billion vaccine fund for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, criticized development programs designed to be "extended in perpetuity while goals remain just out of reach."

And he challenged another industry practice.

"There's always another high-priced consultant that must take another flight to another conference or lead another training," he said. "This practice simply must end." The declaration drew applause from the Center for Global Development audience.

Shah said development funders and practitioners need to understand that, unlike commercial businesses, "We have no interest in our own growth and our own perpetuity. We must seek to do our work in a way that allows us to be replaced over time by efficient local governments, by thriving civil societies and by a vibrant private sector."

He said reform of USAID contracting will mean accelerated "funding to local [non-governmental organizations] and local entrepreneurs, change agents who have the cultural knowledge and in-country expertise to ensure assistance leads to real local institutions and lasting, durable growth."

Shah believes "that if we're not building real incentives into the system to transition to make our projects more sustainable, to work through host-country systems and ministries or local institutions, you know, we're not going to have viable, long-term sustainability strategies." The two things that sustain development activities are the local public and private sectors, he said.

He cited Haiti as an example.

Instead of going completely with U.S. or other contractors who could put up all the needed housing immediately, Shah sent procurement-reform teams to Haiti to work with local construction companies. He admitted this approach slowed "the process a little bit because it would always be faster to just go in with prefab housing" built elsewhere. But helping local construction companies learn how to use local materials, including from the rubble, meant re-building damaged homes to a higher earthquake standard and "allowed us to work with and nurture a local construction industry," he said.

He offered Senegal as a second example.

The African country is one of the 20 priority USAID sites in its Feed the Future program. The goal is to construct an agricultural development program based on rice and dairy products. And to have impact, he said, there must be a partnership with the government and with private-sector investment that will "reach, you know, hundreds of thousands of smallholder farm households."


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